Students were almost entirely absent from the mostly gray-haired crowd that came out to spend an “Evening with Eli” on Tuesday, May 6. Sponsored by the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference, the event was a follow-up to an October conversation between local residents and Eli Ungar, founder and president of Antheus Capital and associated MAC Properties, Hyde Park’s second-largest landholder. About seventy people showed up at the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club to take part in this conversation, which began with a brief PowerPoint by MAC Director of Community Development Peter Cassell. In it, he outlined the company’s recent successes in revamping “uninhabitable” buildings, told its “exciting economic development story” of hiring 130 full-time Chicago employees, and explained recent rent hikes by linking them to the broader picture of condo conversions and the mortgage crisis. Cassell also described Solstice on the Park, a soon-to-be-built condo at 56th and Cornell with modern architecture and a number of “environmentally progressive” features. With MAC’s positive contributions fresh in audience members’ minds, Ungar took the stage, opening the field to their questions.
Many people asked about the aesthetics, logistics, or economics of specific developments. There was some skepticism about the Solstice’s design and some anxiety about ongoing renovations and rent increases at the Windermere, the Del Prado, and East Park Tower. Ungar’s answers appeared candid and to the point: he described the difficulties of inheriting buildings in an advanced state of disrepair, where, he said, an “unwritten social contract” had governed the relations between tenants and previous landlords, with one demanding few services and the other charging low rents. Ungar openly admitted, “We blew it,” in regards to maintenance issues last year, explaining that the company had “grossly underestimated how much there was to do” following its rapid acquisition of properties. One could hardly help but empathize with the owner of this company–who hails from New Jersey–as he told of his trials and errors in the “interesting, diverse, confusing, exciting community” of Hyde Park.
Articulate and charismatic, Ungar had little trouble in pacifying what could have been a justifiably disgruntled audience. But underneath the polite questions and answers lay the uncomfortable fact of MAC’s vast presence in the neighborhood’s rental market, which is only going to grow more costly as apartments are upgraded or converted to condos. Ungar acknowledged, “Gentrification is a double-edged sword. Some people can only afford to live in substandard apartments, and our activity is making apartments more expensive.” Pointing out that the company maintains 129 units of affordable housing in Hyde Park, he also stressed that a system involving “the profit motive” will ultimately be most effective in getting developers “to do something good for others and for themselves.”
Expect that motive to bring less positive changes to the neighborhood as well. Though Ungar said he doubts that MAC will continue to acquire large properties in Hyde Park, this is unlikely to reassure those who already feel they “don’t have options besides MAC,” as one woman said to her friend. “Now that you’re centralized, people don’t know what’s going on,” she asserted. “They’re afraid to ask questions–they don’t feel like management is sensitive to them.” Meetings like this one might help assuage those fears, but for many, they may do little to change the realities.